The NHL trade deadline is 20 days away and there are many teams with upcoming unrestricted free agents (UFAs) who could be lost in the summer for nothing if they aren't re-signed or traded before April 3.
Making the decision to trade an upcoming UFA or keep him with the hopes of reaching a contract extension is a tricky one, especially if your club is fighting for a playoff spot or has a realistic chance of winning the Stanley Cup.
At last year's trade deadline, the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators chose to keep their superstar UFAs (Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, respectively) and make a championship run. Both players departed in free agency, and as a result, left both clubs with huge holes in their roster to fill.
Let's take a look at five upcoming UFAs who teams cannot afford to lose for nothing in free agency.
It's very difficult to trade a superstar as talented as Corey Perry when your team is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, but taking the chance that the 2011 Hart Trophy winner leaves Anaheim in free agency and doesn't allow the Ducks to get anything in return for him is not a smart move from an on-ice or business perspective.
Complicating matters for the Ducks is the fact that they are second in the Western Conference standings and have the second-fewest losses in the league.
The Ducks could keep their star winger and have players such as captain Ryan Getzlaf try to convince Perry to re-sign with the team long-term, but it's a huge gamble. It's hard to imagine the Ducks offering him anything more than what the team just re-signed Getzlaf for (eight years, $66 million), but it's certainly possible that Perry could earn well over $8.5 million on the open market.
If he was traded, the Ducks could acquire an NHL roster player who could help them compete for a title this season, as well as prospects/draft picks that will improve the club's talent and depth for the future.
My prediction for this situation is that Perry will not be traded because the Ducks will want to bolster fan interest in the team and earn extra playoff revenue, and I expect them to do everything possible to re-sign him.
One thing to watch for is the possibility of a sign-and-trade. As his current team, the Ducks can offer Perry an eight-year contract whereas he could only receive a seven-year deal on the open market, per the new CBA.
Anaheim could sign Perry to an extension, keep him for this season and then trade him in the summer to a club that he would want to sign with if he tested free agency. This would give Perry an extra year of guaranteed money and help the Ducks get something of value for him.
Mike Riberio is one of the few top-line centers that is eligible for free agency this summer, so if the Washington Capitals decide to trade him before the deadline, they might be able to acquire a couple of quality assets in return.
The 33-year-old veteran has been one of the few bright spots in what has been a disappointing season in Washington. The Capitals currently sit in 14th place in the Eastern Conference standings and have lost three straight games.
Ribeiro has scored 28 points (nine goals, 19 assists) in 25 games this season and is on pace to finish the season as a point-per-game player for the first time in his career.
With the Capitals still a long way from being the championship contender they were just a few years ago, there's no reason for Ribeiro to re-sign with them before testing the free-agent market.
Washington should take advantage of the fact that they're one of the few teams with a top-six center to dangle in the trade market, and use Ribeiro to acquire more picks for the 2013 NHL Draft, which is loaded with top-tier talent at every position.
If the Capitals lose on Thursday night and fall 12 points behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the Southeast Division, expect them to become sellers at the trade deadline over the next few weeks.
The New York Islanders are only three points behind the rival New York Rangers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but if they start to fall down the standings in the next two weeks, putting captain Mark Streit on the trading block would be a smart idea.
As one of the few puck-moving defenseman that could be available this season, it wouldn't be surprising if several playoff contenders and championship-caliber teams that need help on the blue line show interest in Streit.
Teams expected to make the playoffs such as the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota Wild all need a top-four defenseman with Streit's offensive talent and experience.
The Islanders are still in the midst of a rebuild, so getting some draft picks and/or a top prospect for Streit would improve their chances for the future.
Streit has scored four goals with 10 assists in 26 games this season for New York, and in his four years with the team, he hasn't tallied less than 47 points in a single season. Not only can Streit upgrade a team's scoring from the blue line, he's also capable of improving the power play with his playmaking, vision and high hockey IQ.
At 35, Streit has never won a Stanley Cup since his NHL career began in 2006, so if he wants to win a championship and/or has no plans to re-sign with the Islanders, the team has to trade him.
The New Jersey Devils are another team in the unenviable position of being in the playoff race and having to decide what to do with an important player that is eligible for free agency in the offseason.
After losing superstar forward and captain Zach Parise as an unrestricted free agent last summer, the Devils cannot allow another first-line winger in David Clarkson to also leave the franchise without getting anything in return.
Clarkson had a breakout year in 2011-12 when he scored a career-high 30 goals, and in 27 games this season, the 28-year-old forward has 10 goals and eight assists.
He is a key part of the team's offense, the power play and is the best power forward the Devils have on their roster. Clarkson is also a fan favorite, which makes him important to the business side of the franchise.
If Clarkson leaves in the summer as a free agent, replacing him will be difficult because the Devils don't have a right-winger at any level of their organization who projects to be a top-six NHL forward.
According to Capgeek, New Jersey has about $12 million in salary-cap space right now, so they do have plenty of room under the cap ceiling to sign Clarkson to a contract extension. As a quality goal scorer who is responsible defensively, plays with a high compete level and excels on special teams, Clarkson could earn $5 million or more per season on the open market.
Hockey's Future has the Devils' organization 27th out of 30 teams in their prospect rankings, and since New Jersey has to forfeit a first-round pick this season or next season because of the Ilya Kovalchuk contract situation, acquiring another one over the next two years would be a smart move for the team.
If the Devils think that Clarkson will test the free-agent market, they should consider trading him and hope to get a first-round pick and a good prospect in return.
Jarome Iginla's willingness to stay with the Calgary Flames through a lot of disappointing seasons proves how loyal he is to the only NHL team he's ever played for.
But at 35 years old, Iginla's chances of winning the Stanley Cup in Calgary are extremely slim with the team sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
As a top power forward who can score goals, play an important role on the power play and penalty kill and also provide veteran leadership, Iginla could be the most sought after "rental" player of the last 15 years.
Future Hall of Fame players who still perform at a high level rarely get traded in the middle of a season, so if the Flames want to dangle him at the deadline, they should be able to acquire some valuable assets that will aid the team's rebuild.
The Flames don't have any right-wing prospects that project to be a top-six forward, so if they lose Iginla for nothing in free agency, the team won't have a young player ready to replace him in the short term.
Moving Iginla before the deadline could also help the Flames acquire more defensive depth, which is an area of their organization that needs a lot of work since they have no blueliners at the CHL, AHL or NCAA levels who project to be a top-four defenseman.
What would the Flames want in return for Iginla? Eric Francis of the Calgary Sun speculated earlier this week:
With all the interested bidders in Iginla I can't see him going for anything less than a 1st rounder (albeit late), a prospect & player— Eric Francis (@EricFrancis) March 12, 2013
When you have a player as talented as Iginla, who could be the final piece in a contending team's pursuit of the Stanley Cup, you cannot afford to let him walk in free agency, especially when the Flames don't have a deep prospect pool and need to do a full rebuild as soon as possible.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.